Charles Darwin has never been more popular than today," writes John Durant in the July 11 New York Times Book Review. "His theory of natural selection is all but universally accepted as the correct explanation for the diversity of life on earth." Much of the religious world, however, still struggles with Darwin. On August 11, for example, the Kansas Board of Education, bowing to pressure from Christian "creationists," decided that the topic of evolution (as well as reference to Big Bang cosmology) will no longer be included in statewide tests for evaluating students’ knowledge of science. Appropriately lamenting the decision, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould commented in Time magazine (August 23) that the deletion of evolution from the required biology curriculum is comparable to teaching chemistry without the periodic table, or American history without mentioning Lincoln. Both the Kansas decision and Gould’s essay provide the occasion for a few remarks on the question of evolution and theology.

To a large number of American Christians (over 40 percent), Darwin’s vision of nature still seems irreconcilable with their most cherished beliefs. Even apart from the obvious challenge by evolutionary science to biblical literalism, it is not terribly difficult to understand why. For one thing, the variations that compose the raw material for evolution are said to be completely accidental, undirected by any divine intelligence. Next, the competitive "struggle" in which weaker organisms (the reproductively unfit) are ruthlessly eliminated exposes a universe apparently untended by divine compassion. And the disinterested manner of natural selection strongly suggests that we live in a remorselessly uncaring universe, one hardly residing in the bosom of a providing deity. Add to this the idea that life and mind arose with no sharp breaks from mindless matter over a period of billions of years, and you have the picture of a universe quite unlike any conceived of by our traditional religions.

As the result of long brooding over his own discoveries, Darwin himself had confessed that disbelief gradually "crept over" him. And to many contemporary neo-Darwinians such "disbelief" seems to be a most logical implication of their science. The evolutionary process is, in the words of David Hull, "rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain, and horror." Any God who would devise or watch over a Darwinian world must be "careless, indifferent, almost diabolical." This is not, says Hull, "the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray."

Lacking a convincing theology of evolution, not only biblicist Kansans but also the world of religious thought in general has had difficulty coming to grips with Darwin. Even though most noncreationist theologians have given notional assent to evolution, and the pope himself has conceded its general probability, those who have actually appropriated Darwin’s science in depth are, I believe, comparatively few. Even outside of Protestant fundamentalist circles antipathy to Darwin seems to be gathering strength in some religious circles. The journal First Things habitually offers safe harbor to anti-Darwinians such as Phillip Johnson (who has also written for Commonweal) and Nancy Pearsey. A recent editorial in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review called Darwin’s science "a fairy tale for adults." And the Catholic biochemist Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box, Touchstone), proposing "intelligent design" as a scientific refutation of Darwin, has achieved considerable popularity among religious conservatives.

Meanwhile, even moderate and liberal Christian theologians generally avoid sustained discussion of Darwinian evolution. Many will allow that "evolution is God’s way of creating," but in order to espouse even this much they often seem to edit out the most repellent features of Darwin’s own troubling picture of life. Most contemporary theology still fails to reflect the obvious: Darwin has changed forever how we can reasonably think about God-that is, if we think about God at all.

However, if theology has fallen short of Darwin, so has the intellectual world at large. As the late Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas reminded us in one of his last essays, philosophy remains stuck in a materialism completely inadequate to the opulence of evolution. Moreover, it is worth noting that "enlightened" evolutionary materialists are typically no less biblically literalist than the majority members of the Kansas Board of Education. For example, Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown & Co.), whom Marvin Minsky calls "our best current philosopher," brazenly declares his agreement with the creationists, claiming with them that Darwin’s great idea is indeed incompatible with the Bible. "Science has won and religion has lost," he proudly announces. "Darwin’s idea has banished the Book of Genesis to the limbo of quaint mythology."

Similarly, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson expresses wonderment that anyone would try to reconcile the Bible with biology. Together with the Kansas creationists he puts Darwin’s science into sharp competition with Genesis, a work that disappoints him by failing to provide a quality grade of information about the natural world. Surely, he complains in his celebrated recent book Consilience (Alfred A. Knopf), if the Scriptures were inerrant they would not have given us so faulty a picture of nature. By overlooking evolution "the biblical authors had missed the most important revelation of all!" Although Dennett and Wilson may differ from creationists in declaring Darwin right and the Bible wrong, they are just as anachronistic in expecting the ancient texts to yield reliable science.

Recently, however, America’s most prolific evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, has been striving mightily to put a distance between himself and the publicly anti-theistic neo-Darwinians. While candidly professing his own agnosticism, apparently Gould has awakened to the fact that in a theistic culture the cause of science education is hardly served by tying Darwin’s ideas as tightly to the death of God as do his rivals, especially Dennett and the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker [Norton] and The Selfish Gene [Oxford University Press]). Dennett and Dawkins clearly enjoy brandishing the atheism they claim to be the underside of Darwin’s revolution, while Gould considers such antics to be pointless.

In his Time commentary, Gould once again makes his constant insistence that there can really be no conflict between evolution and faith. Science and religion, he says, are talking about two entirely disparate sets of topics. They should be "equal, mutually respecting partners, each the master of its own domain, and with each domain vital to human life in a different way." As he has elsewhere recently begun to put it, science and religion are "nonoverlapping magisteria" (noma).

One must credit Gould for trying so hard to bridge the deep cultural divide between the religious world and evolutionary science. It is hard to doubt his sincerity. Still, a closer look at his own rather cropped and condescending interpretation of religion raises serious questions about whether he really provides much help.

he problem is that Gould never concedes the slightest cognitive status to religion or theology. Science, he writes in Time, is "an inquiry about the factual state of the natural world." Religion, on the other hand, is a "search for spiritual meaning and ethical values." He never allows that religion can put us in touch with transcendent reality or, for that matter, give us anything resembling truth. Rather, no less than Dawkins, Dennett, and Wilson, he holds that only science can be trusted to put us in touch with what is. At best, religion paints a coat of "value" over the otherwise valueless "facts" disclosed by science. Religion can enshroud reality with "meaning," but, for Gould, this meaning is purely of our own making.

Perhaps a generous reading will allow that this is at least some progress. I personally doubt it, though, since the real issue in Kansas and elsewhere is whether, in the wake of Darwin’s ideas about nature, we can coherently claim-independently of our own valuations-that the universe is in fact purposeful. That Gould himself rejects such a possibility for Darwinian reasons is clear from his own writings. Throughout his career he has maintained that what makes Darwin so difficult for people to swallow is not the science of evolution as such, but the "philosophical message" that comes along with it. And just what is this message? As Gould expresses it in such books as Ever Since Darwin and Wonderful Life (both Norton), Darwin’s message is that life has no direction, that there is no purpose to the universe, and that matter is "all there is." And, as far as Gould is concerned, this "philosophical message" cannot appropriately be disengaged from Darwin’s science.

Thus, in the end, beneath his well-intended overtures to religion, Gould, in company with Dawkins and Dennett, allows that only a materialist and absurdist philosophy can appropriately contextualize evolutionary science. We should note that Gould himself is not at all frustrated by this state of affairs. An inherently meaningless world, he submits, allows us humans to give our own meanings to it, and in this way realize our special creative potential.

Needless to say, not only creationists, but all religious believers-not to mention ecological ethicists-can only shiver at Gould’s repeated contention that we alone are the authors of nature’s value and meaning. If he is correct in tying Darwin’s theory inalienably to the idea of a cosmos intrinsically devoid of overall significance, then no conceivable theology, by anyone’s definition, could ever live comfortably with evolution. Gould is certainly correct to observe that "no scientific theory, including evolution, can pose any threat to religion." But his persistent approval of the materialist ideology in which allegedly "scientific" presentations of Darwin’s great idea often come packaged does not help his case.

Where, then, does this leave us? The Kansas decision, the general reluctance of religious thought to engage Darwin head-on, and the academically sponsored persistence of materialist evolutionism all show, once again, that convincing noncreationist theological interpretations of Darwinian evolution are virtually unknown to both the scientific community and vast numbers of religious people. Theology simply needs to pay more attention to evolution. Although biblical literalism will always be an obstacle, our religious thought and education could at least begin to show more clearly than before how the Darwinian picture of life is more or less what we should expect if the world’s creator is a God of infinite love. While Teilhard de Chardin and Alfred North Whitehead may have helped us begin this work, the science of evolution has continued to evolve, and it is now time for a more rigorous and publicly accessible renewal of post-Darwinian theology.

 John F. Haught is Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown University and author of The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University Press, 2017).

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 1999-09-24 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.